A Science Student’s Guide to Succeed in the Humanities: From Cell Structure to Symbols

Image by Saint Louis University Madrid Campus, Flickr

Image by Saint Louis University Madrid Campus, Flickr

Many universities have breadth requirements stipulating students must take classes outside of their specialized programs. A science student must take at least one arts, humanities, or social science course, and vice versa. This article is a life raft for those fish-out-of-water science students who have trouble writing essays or understanding Shakespeare – to help their transition from successfully studying cell structure to symbols.

Keep a flexible perspective

Do not approach your first humanities class like you have all previous science classes. Allow the class itself to adjust your perspective by what you read and learn. Science classes have a very distinct method of teaching and testing – almost always structured with multiple choice questions and lab sections. Be prepared to study differently than you have for previous exams. While the same level of rigour is used in arts classes, the approach can be different. At the rudimentary level, the humanities hold more grey areas. The answer to an essay question can go beyond “yes” or “no.” The rules of grammar don’t change, but Shakespeare’s sonnets can be interpreted in a variety of ways. This difference is reflected in the disparate testing methods for arts vs. sciences: argumentative essays vs. multiple choice, respectively.

Contextualize using a general authority in the field.

Apart from your assigned readings, find out if there is an established authority in the field you are studying, and read their major works (your readings may already contain these sources). American studies, anthropology, Celtic studies, classics, history, philosophy, public policy, religion, women and gender studies – all of these fields contain a handful of works considered essential to understanding the basic principles of that field. For example, most political science students have read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. By reading a couple chapters or a good summary (SparkNotes is a quick and dirty resource), you can glean the jargon used and apply it to your essay. Sometimes you can find these major sources through a simple Google search, but you can also ask your TA or professor. Your drive to learn more about their field of study will impress them – bonus!

Make your situation known to the TA or professor.

Simply tell your TA that this is your first course in their field of study, and that you want to exceed expectations despite your inexperience. They will likely appreciate your initiative and honesty. Ask specifically for tips on how to write the essay, such as general points to touch on, and how you should contextualize the topic. To avoid outright asking “What should I put in my essay?” Say, “This is what I think I should include in my essay,” or “From my impressions in class, this is what I think you are looking for,” and then tell them! Hopefully your professor/TA will confirm your hypotheses or correct you – either way, you get invaluable information you would not have gained by keeping to yourself.

Look at past tests and assignments.

Humanities final exams usually include a major essay question that you must write in class. Writing an in-class essay can be a challenge for science students, as it is vastly different from the multiple choice testing format. To prepare, go over your class notes and establish major themes in the class, using multiple assigned readings. Some schools collect past tests and exams from their classes and make them available to students. Studying past tests will also give you an idea of how to approach the final essay and exam – do the past tests ask essay questions, or short answers? What themes are present? Has the same question been asked five years running? Use these past tests in conjunction with your class notes to identify patterns in the class content and prepare some points to use for your final essay in advance.

Any science student can succeed in the humanities using their pre-existing skills. The key is to apply them in a new way outside of the “multiple choice mindset,” using research to capitalize on your critical thinking and memorization skills. Evidence and sound logic is needed for an argumentative essay, just as it is for a lab report. The bottom line: in studying for the arts, be scientific.